Monday, July 13, 2009

The 2009 Hugo Awards: The Best Novel Shortlist, Part 2

[part 1 here]

By the time I got around to reading Cory Doctorow's Little Brother I'd developed something of a complex about the book. That'll happen when every single thing you read about a novel that is, by any yardstick of critical exposure and fannish attention, the genre novel of 2008 only deepens your conviction that you're going to loathe it. Little Brother's positive reviews stress everything that I hate most in fiction--its preachiness, its naked, political didacticism, and the sublimation of plot, character, and all other literary attributes to this end. Its negative reviews question whether Little Brother, whose action is frequently halted so that it can transform into an instruction manual for fomenting revolution, ought even to be called a novel. Having conquered my fear, I'm pleased to report that Little Brother is, in fact, a novel. It has a story, and a rather engaging one at that--following a terrorist attack on San Francisco, teenager Marcus Yallow and his friends are rounded up by Homeland Security for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, held without cause or access to an attorney, interrogated and tortured. When they're released, one of their number is missing, and as DHS tightens its grip on the city Marcus, using his hacker know-how, dedicates himself to undermining it. It's a simplistic plot, to be sure, and carries more than a whiff of the self-righteous fantasy of suffering for a good cause, but it's also an effective one. For all of Little Brother's frequent infodumps, and despite the fact that Marcus's burgeoning political awareness comes neatly packaged in lesson plan-sized chunks, the relevant soundbites all but highlighted for our convenience, it's hard not to get caught up in Marcus's adventure, in the intensity of his hatred for DHS and the risks he runs trying to outsmart them. I found it possible to enjoy Little Brother despite its didacticism and despite the frequent infodumps (which are anyway quite easy to skip, as they contribute nothing to the plot of the novel). What I couldn't get past was Marcus himself.

The consensus seems to be that like Zoe Boutin, Marcus is a thinly veiled version of his own author. Perhaps because I'm not a regular Boing Boing reader, the similarity between Marcus and Doctorow's voices didn't strike me as strongly as it did in Zoe's case, and though some of Marcus's interests seem suspiciously adult, on the whole I think he makes a persuasive teenager. Which is to say that he's an arrogant, self-absorbed dickhead. This actually works in the novel's favor in its early chapters, which contrast Marcus mouthing off to his vice principal (who knows that Marcus has committed a crime but can't prove it) and getting away with it, with Marcus giving the DHS agents who have picked him up in a random sweep some attitude, and ending up sleep-deprived, starving, and lying in his own waste. It's precisely because the first scene depicts Marcus as something of a punk, who could maybe stand to be taken down a peg (I leave it as an exercise to the reader whether Doctorow intended for us to have this reaction), that the second scene, and Marcus's complete disintegration in its wake, come as such a shock. The problems start when Marcus, and his friends Vanessa and Jolu, are released and realize that their other friend Darryl is missing. An incensed Marcus vows:
It happened to me, that's the point. This is me and them, now. I'll beat them, I'll get Darryl. I'm not going to take this lying down.
Which is a rather neat summary of everything that's wrong with Marcus Yallow, and of why it's so completely messed up that Little Brother tries to sell him as a hero. Only moments after realizing that his friend is still in hands of kidnappers and torturers, Marcus makes the entire ordeal about himself. Though he pays lip service to the notion that he's going to rescue Darryl, what's important to Marcus is that he be the one to effect that rescue. Marcus's next move is to convince Vanessa and Jolu to lie to their parents about their kidnapping and Darryl's whereabouts so that Marcus can launch a campaign to get back at the DHS unimpeded (thus allowing Darryl's parents to believe that their son was killed in the bombing). This choice collapses Little Brother's plot into a sort of corollary to the idiot plot--a story that only works if the majority of its characters don't know that anything is happening--but it also paints Marcus as the sort of person who genuinely cares more about avenging a blow to his pride than rescuing his friend. For all its carping about justice and liberty, what Little Brother boils down to is revenge. The DHS shamed Marcus, and took away his power. What he wants, and what all his actions over the course of novel are aimed at achieving, is to humiliate them in retaliation and thus get his power back. That's a normal, understandable reaction, but it is not, as Doctorow would have us believe, an admirable one, and in its own way it is no less reflexive and destructive than that of Marcus's father, whose liberalism collapses into an us vs. them, security first conservatism in the wake of the bombing. Both he and Marcus are lashing out at the people who have hurt them without any real consideration of the consequences of their actions.

Little Brother does, eventually, get back to the issue of rescuing Darryl and the others like him who have been held, by that point for months, without charge or even acknowledgement of their detention, but not before Marcus becomes the founder and leader of a new youth movement and makes it with a hot chick (a Girlfriend so Perfect that it is mind-boggling that any author with even an ounce of self-awareness would allow her out of his sight unedited). When he finally does remember Darryl for more than a few consecutive minutes, Marcus does what he should have done in the first place--tell his and Darryl's parents the truth, and get the media involved. This, however, is not depicted as Marcus coming to his senses and realizing how childish and self-centered he's been, but as a culmination of his heroism, despite the fact that Marcus's anti-establishment activities have done nothing to hasten Darryl's release. Darryl and his suffering--by the time Marcus finds him, he's psychologically shattered--are nothing but a means to Marcus achieving fame, fortune, and the loss of his virginity. For all that it is exciting and engaging, Little Brother is as tone deaf a portrait of social activism as I've ever encountered, and I'm quite baffled by the commonly voiced argument that it is a worthwhile novel because of the lessons it teaches children about liberty and civil rights. Is this really what kids ought to be learning? That it is more important to look cool than to help people, and that real heroes put their own hurt feelings ahead of the well-being of others?

One reason I am glad to have read Little Brother is that having done so finally allows me to draw an informed comparison between it and Anathem. In a lot of ways, Anathem and Little Brother are the same book--the narrative of a clueless, emotionally illiterate teenage boy who becomes embroiled in world-shattering events (in the process gaining status, acclaim, and the love of a cool and sexy girl) and whose narrative is half story, half infodump. Of course, Stephenson lectures where Doctorow preaches, but on the other hand there's so much more lecturing in Anathem than there is preaching, or in fact anything else, in Little Brother, and given that the books share other faults--mainly the flatness of their characters and the utilitarian and often befuddled treatment of women--it does bare pondering why I had such different reactions to them. The reason, I think, is the narrators themselves. Unlike Doctorow's mouthpiece, Anathem's Erasmas is a good kid. Like Marcus, he's spurred to action by the misfortunes of a loved one, his teacher Orolo, but unlike Marcus what interests Erasmas isn't getting even with the people who hurt Orolo but actually doing something to help him. One of my favorite scenes in Anathem comes close to its end, when Erasmas talks to Lodoghir, one of Orolo's philosophical enemies. In their previous meeting, Lodoghir subjected Erasmas to a grueling public humiliation as a way of discrediting Orolo's theories. Marcus Yallow would turn this blow to his pride into the crux of his existence, and dedicate himself to getting back at Lodoghir. Erasmas, realizing that there are greater issues at stake, gets over himself, and when Lodoghir becomes part of the effort to save their planet, he and Erasmas treat each other as allies. They don't like each other and they don't agree with each other, but they both realize that they are not the most important person in their story. For all of Little Brother's this-is-happening-now hysteria, that's something Marcus, and Doctorow, never grasp.

In a way, then, I'm grateful to Cory Doctorow for writing a novel as bad as Little Brother, because it's caused me to regain some of my appreciation for Anathem, which has otherwise proved effervescent. I liked it very much when I read it this winter, but the farther away I get from the novel the more significant its flaws seem, and the harder it becomes to recapture the pleasure of reading it. That pleasure seems to have been rooted in the slow learning of Erasmas's world, an alternate Earth in which the scientifically inclined are sequestered in monastic orders for their, and the general population's, protection. Erasmas's continent-spanning adventure, which is sparked when Orolo is the first to detect an alien ship in planetary orbit, and ends up taking Erasmas into space, is nothing but a delivery method for this world, for Stephenson's potted history of Western philosophy, and for the novel's neat-as-hell final twist (in a way, Stephenson is as fond of Stuff as Stross, but the difference between Anathem's elegance and Saturn's Children's diffuse messiness is that Stephenson's Stuff is introduced with a goal in mind, each infodump a stepping stone on the path to the novel's central revelation). Anathem is a puzzle book, but once the puzzle has been put together there's nothing to stop us noticing just how flimsy its plot and characters are. Ultimately, Anathem really is a more humane, more intelligent, more interesting, significantly less preachy version of Little Brother, but that's not exactly high praise.

Meanwhile, there's a persuasive argument for favoring Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book for the win. I was underwhelmed by Gaiman's latest, a children's novel which retells The Jungle Book with a twist by having its protagonist, Nobody Owens, raised by the ghostly inhabitants of a graveyard he flees to after his parents' murder. Like most of Gaiman's work, The Graveyard Book is polished and technically superb, but it is also somewhat weightless--beyond the neat central concept, there's really not much substance to the book. It's a cute, well done novel, but far from Gaiman's best and with nothing to distinguish it as deserving of a major award. That, at least, was my feeling last winter, before the Hugo odyssey began. Taken alongside the other nominees, The Graveyard Book starts to look very good indeed, if only because Gaiman is alone on the shortlist in actually having written a novel--a work of fiction whose primary concern is the telling of a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and the exploration of its characters' personalities and inner life. (Is it a coincidence, one wonders, that The Graveyard Book is the only fantasy on the ballot?) What's more, unlike Scalzi, Doctorow, and Stephenson, Gaiman actually writes persuasive children, or for that matter, persuasive people. Gaiman's characters, and his world, have depth, whereas all the other nominated novels are nothing but surface--flat, unrealistic characters, and settings created to make a point or cobbled together from other, better writers' scraps. The sheer pleasure of immersing oneself in a world that feels emotionally real is almost enough to make up for the fact that Gaiman does so little with that world.

Almost, but not quite. In the end, I placed Anathem above The Graveyard Book in my Hugo ballot. Though both novels are flawed, I think that The Graveyard Book's flaws would come to seem more irksome in later years if Gaiman were to win. It's the better novel from a technical standpoint, but Anathem is the one that does something new and different and uniquely SFnal, as well as being the novel that engaged me emotionally when I first read it. If I had managed to read all five nominated novels before July 3rd, I still would have voted No Award in the third slot (followed, in case you're interested, by Zoe's Tale, then possibly another, more emphatic No Award vote, then Little Brother and Saturn's Children). I think Anathem has a good chance of winning, though Doctorow and Gaiman also have strong fanbases among Hugo voters, and both of their novels have had a lot of buzz (Scalzi, meanwhile, is a long shot, and Stross probably doesn't have a chance). It's hard to work up much pleasure at that thought, however, as this year's ballot has me rooting against the nominees I dislike rather than for the ones I like. I think it's safe to say that my first experience reading all five Hugo nominated novels has not been a positive one. I'm going to hold on to the hope that 2008 was an aberration, both in the quality of books published and in the tastes of the Hugo voters, but I'm suddenly very pleased that this experiment in being a Hugo voter is unlikely to recur for some time.

14 comments:

Nicholas Tam said...

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom soured me on Doctorow's fiction before I had even heard of him in conjunction with Boing Boing. Kingdom wasn't bad so much as it was dripping all over with Slashdot-generation self-righteousness, but your review of Little Brother leaves me with the impression that Doctorow has since elected to dial it to the max rather than tone it down.

chance said...

The consensus seems to be that like Zoe Boutin, Marcus is a thinly veiled version of his own author. Perhaps because I'm not a regular Boing Boing reader, the similarity between Marcus and Doctorow's voices didn't strike me as strongly as it did in Zoe's case

Hmm, while I do think Zoe sounds just like Scalzi's blog, I think the case for Marcus being Cory Sue is not that he sounds like Doctorow in his blog (which I never read), but that he reads like an ridiculously idealized version of a teen who has most of the same interests as Doctorow and who would one day grow up to write a blog just like Boing Boing -- I felt like I could hear Doctorow whispering in my ear "Isn't he awesome?"

(Note: I never did finish the book, so maybe it got less annoying as the book went on.)

cofax said...

What I thought particularly ironic about Little Brother was that, in the end, what saves Marcus and Darryl isn't Marcus' anti-establishment antics, but a very traditional Appeal to Authority. He goes to his parents, and then to the press, and then the State of California steps in.

Which neatly undercuts every other argument Doctorow makes about the need for civil disobedience in the face of unfair authority.

Of course, the end is also complete bullshit: the supremacy clause of the Constitution would prevent the state of California from doing what it does at the end of the book. No way could the State Police kick the DHS out. No way, no how, not without functionally seceding from the Union.

I found the book an entertaining read, but ultimately unconvincing.

Jonquil said...

This was a remarkably thoughtful and well-reasoned pair of essays. Thank you.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Nicholas:

I remember liking Down and Out well enough when I read it several years ago, and what's soured me on Doctorow's writing was actually his short stories, which after a few intriguing efforts seemed to collapse into a dispiriting sameness, repeatedly hitting on the same topics. Which is why I was so impressed with his collaboration with Benjamin Rosenbaum on the novella ballot, which takes his favorite themes in new direction while telling an interesting story. If there's a Hugo in Doctorow's future, I'd rather it be for that.

Chance:

Yes, there's a rather noticeable id vortex component to the novel that tracks with what you're saying.

Cofax:

Yes, the resolution completely undercuts Doctorow's point, but then I'm not sure the point he intended was actually the one you'd tend to take from the novel. The epilogue has Marcus (by that point clearly no longer a character in his own right but acting as an authorial mouthpiece) urging people to vote and to encourage their neighbors to vote. Which is great, but what the body of the novel was describing was not a push towards an orderly, democratic change in government, but the attempt to overthrow a tyrannical government. These things are not the same.

I'm getting a real Battlestar Galactica vibe off Little Brother, in that it's a political work whose author is trying to make his argument more through tone and semantics than argument, and whose argument subsequently ends up saying something very different than what he meant.

Jonquil:

Thanks, and may I say I really enjoyed your two recent posts about Doctorow's Makers.

Kit said...

Doctorow had a problem in that you cannot, in fact, overthrow a modern police state with a cyberwar, or for that matter by any other means that doesn't coopt the security forces. He's smart enough to realize this, but not smart enough to figure out what one should do instead (and in his defense, there is no obvious answer). He wasn't going to take his premise to its logical conclusion and end the book by sending his avatar to be tortured in a secret prison in Egypt; thus we get the schizophrenic ending to Little Brother where the government steps in and saves everyone from itself. Yeah, right.

It was engaging, and I think I enjoyed it more than you did, Abigail, but I found the infodumps more interesting than the story for the most part, especially given that the book's moral arc boiled down to "h4xx0rz R 1337!!!" It was more like a commercial than a novel- buy my philosophy and look, girls will make out with you!

Along with his unconscionable decision to let Darryl's parents think their child was dead, I also enjoyed how Marcus never thought once that along with annoying the government, creating enough disorder to shut down the transportation system would also make it hard for people to, say, get to the hospital. And the narrative never confronts him with any of this. It's fine for Marcus to be moronically self-absorbed; he's fifteen, but you'd hope that in a didactic tract Doctorow would bother to address the actual moral consequences of the kind of activism he's advocating.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think my problem with the infodumps in Little Brother is that very few of them told me something I didn't know. Stephenson gets into astronomy and philosophy and amusing geometrical proofs, but I really didn't need Cory Doctorow to tell me about cryptography, or what a DNS server is. Plus, there's one moment, when Marcus breathlessly tells the readers that programming is ace because "When you program a computer, it does
exactly what you tell it to do" that had me laughing out loud. I strongly suspect that Doctorow has never worked as a programmer, otherwise he'd have added the caveat that what you tell the computer to do is quite often very different from what you meant to tell it to do.

I also enjoyed how Marcus never thought once that along with annoying the government, creating enough disorder to shut down the transportation system would also make it hard for people to, say, get to the hospital

What bothered me is that it never occurred to Marcus that his actions would be a tremendous boon to any terrorists who might actually be in San Francisco. Clearly, there's a debate to be had here - as Doctorow depicts them, DHS are more interested in cementing their power than capturing terrorists - but Doctorow simply shouts down any suggestion that DHS might actually exist to perform a necessary task, however poorly they are actually performing it, by having Marcus point out that no terrorists have been captured yet. He never stops to consider that if there are any good faith efforts to do so, he's been seriously impeding them.

Corey Redekop said...

I'm actually using Little Brother as a book club choice for my library, so I'm greatly indebted to the discussion here for some interesting ponts to bring up. I'm a far bigger admirer of Doctorow than most of the commenters here (Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is my favourite), but I'll admit that the didactic nature of Little Brother is a bit much at times. But when you compare this YA novel to, say, Twilight (a poorly-written slapdash piece of dreck with nothing on its mind but surprisingly anti-feminist propoganda), at least there are writers out there trying to engender real debate and thought in young readers.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I haven't read Twilight, but everything I've heard suggests that that's certainly the case, Corey. Still, better for kids than Twilight* is hardly a ringing endorsement.

* Though I have to ask: clearly kids in general would be better off reading Little Brother than Twilight, but how much better off would girls be? The only female teens in the novel are a) Marcus's friend Vanessa, who is too scared to join his revolution and turns out to have unrequited feelings for him, and is made miserable by both situations, b) a fellow DHS prisoner who is made into an informant, and c) the super-cool, beautiful, funny, charming Ange, who exists solely as Marcus's reward for being a revolutionary hero. Adult women are either sidelined (Marcus's mother, the journalist who actually gets Darryl out of prison) or villains (the DHS agent who interrogates Marcus, the substitute civics teacher who is basically Dolores Umbridge with a Southern accent). I'm not sure that what Little Brother tells girls is much more feminist than Twilight's message.

Corey Redekop said...

Arguable, but let's not forget that Little Brother is told from the point of view of a 17-year-old male. It's a little shallow, yes, but so are all boys that age.

I kid. I do know what you mean, but there are plenty of YA fictions out there with equally strong female characters, so I don't think teen girls will go wanting. What Twilight does is boil the entire female existence to waiting for a man to come and save them. The girls and women in Little Brother may be a little 1-D, but at least there's a gamut of characters to choose from. Twilight portrays girls as simpering and useless. I'd argue forcefully that Little Brother is a far superior alternative.

Cake said...

Just as a matter of curiosity, what were you thinking of when you described Gaiman's work as "polished and technically superb"?

I ask because I've always found his writing rather flat and his plots too dependent on a combination of plot coupons and (fairly arbitrary seeming) betrayal...

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Bear in mind that I was reevaluating the novel after having read the other Hugo nominees, none of whom are great prose stylists.

But even without that caveat, on the level of sentences and paragraphs (which is what I mean by technical) I've always found much to admire about Gaiman. He's no John Crowley or M. John Harrison, but he writes well and compellingly, and knows how to use language to evoke emotion.

Cake said...

Fair enough. When it comes to prose style, personal taste probably has a lot to do with it too. For example, I found some of the sentences you quoted in your review of Kit Whitfield to be quite good, actually - the prose seemed rhythmic, vivid and almost incantatory in a way that you usually don't see in most of the genre fiction I have read (there are some exceptions - Stephen King springs to mind - though there is possibly something a little manic about his prose at times).

To me, Neil Gaiman seems a little too fond of a sort of "X and Y and Z" construction. You can almost hear him trying to be solemn and slightly over-doing it. I don't have any of his books near to hand, unfortunately, but I noticed it several times when I was reading ANANSI BOYS and it started to become one of those things that just leap out at you, whether you want them to or not.

By and large, good prose seems to live in the mainstream section of the bookstore rather than the sci-fi section... Though I think Kelly Link often does interesting things with language.

ibmiller said...

I know I'm late to this discussion, but I thought as you were a) the reason I read Zoe's Tale, Little Brother, Saturn's Children, Anathem, and (when the hundreds of people in front of me at the library are done with it) The Graveyard Book, I should at least post for posterity.

And that is to say - I agree with you completely about Little Brother and Saturn's Children - the latter a pretentious, fanfictiony bore, and the former so offensive in its championing of such a stupid, selfrighteous natural male child of large rodents that it left me upset for the next several days.

I have to say I enjoyed Zoe's Tale a lot, though I would tend to agree that it doesn't sound quite like a teenage girl (though I've never been one). The lack of voice-variety isn't nearly as much of an issue when compared to some of Scalzi's early stuff - Agent to the Stars was particularly egregious in that respect, in addition to having the somewhat sexist office romance. However, I'd like to point out that Zoe's Tale has a lot of political points in its favor, pace Little Brother - the main character is an admirable female girl who's not sickly sweet perfect, but (however unbelievable) hardworking, intelligent, and held up as an example of a good person. The typical "girlfriend so perfect" role goes to...the guy. Pretty much everything Little Brother wasn't. I'll grant it's basically pulpy sci-fi space opera written to sell very well - but I like that stuff. And wish Elizabeth Moon's last book in the Vatta's War series had pushed Saturn's Children off the list.

But then, I actually liked Twilight, so what do I know?

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